Sunday, July 23, 2017

Paris Journal: Paris’s “bleus” appartient à temps perdu

Paris’s “blues” belong to a lost time

By Moristotle

As I posted on February 20 (“Lost time reading Marcel Proust”), I have been reading Marcel Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu [In Search of Lost Time] – reading it, that is, in an English edition that renders the title “Remembrance of Things Past.”
    My friend Mark (whose apartment Carolyn and I use in Montmartre) and I were reminiscing via email recently about our college years, and he mentioned on Friday that although he majored in engineering at Cornell, he took a series of electives in literature, including a class on European fiction taught by the novelist Herbert Gold (born 1924). (Gold finished his first novel in Paris, I learned from Wikipedia – a touchstone for Mark.) Mark remembered that one of the books covered in the class was Swann’s Way, the first volume of Proust’s novel.
    Gold drew his students’ attention to the following passage:

“Isn’t he delicious! Quite a ladies’ man already; he takes after his uncle. He’ll be a perfect ‘gentleman,’” she added, clenching her teeth so as to give the word a kind of English accentuation. “Couldn’t he come to me some day for ‘a cup of tea,’ as our friends across the Channel say? He need only send me a ‘blue’ in the morning?”
    I [the narrator is the nephew referred to] had not the least idea what a “blue” might be. I did not understand half the words which the lady used, but my fear lest there should be concealed in them some question which it would be impolite of me not to answer made me keep on listening to them with close attention, and I was beginning to feel extremely tired.
    Mark said that Gold then demanded that someone in the class tell him what a “blue” was. “Like Ben Hecht in his literary debate [with Max Bodenheim in 1917], he slowly scanned the class, his eyes meeting those of every student. Nobody had the faintest idea. At which non-response, Gold proceeded to roast us all for careless (and un-curious) reading, which he took to be The Eighth Deadly Sin.”
    When I read Mark’s email, the passage didn’t immediately come back to me, and I had to think anew what a “blue” might be. Actually, because I had begun reading Proust by listening to a recorded book, I might not have even really heard “blue,” and so may not have thought about it at all back then. All I could think of now was that “blue” likely meant some sort of postal message. The U.S. Postal Service used to sell light blue international postal forms, with postage and stick-um for folding up, securing, and mailing. Perhaps the Paris post office in the period covered by Proust had something blue for quick local delivery?

I told Mark this is what I figured, and he responded that, yes, he remembered those light blue USPS aerograms. He said that in pre-internet days they had been the mainstay of his European correspondence. And, indeed, he said, the French had something similar. But even before that there was a similar form, also light blue, he said, “intended for transmission, via the network of pneumatic tubes that spanned Paris, to the post office nearest the delivery address.” Pneumatic tubes! “Upon arrival at that station the message was passed on to a bicycle messenger, so that the overall elapsed time between submission and delivery was sometimes as short as an hour or two!”
    I was dumbfounded by this information. And Mark even sent me a photo he had taken years ago (at the postal museum in Paris) of a map of the system of tubes:

    And he added:
It eventually became possible, using the appropriate type of “letter,” to enclose small items such as a bank check or a theater ticket in the envelope. The earlier versions of the service (see photos below, captured from the web) were limited either to the equivalent of post cards, or the blue aerograms we were speaking of the other day – and those latter were imprinted with a specific caution against placing anything in the folded and sealed “envelope.”

When I consulted the Nook Book edition of Proust, which I think I acquired after I had progressed beyond the “blue” passage, I saw that it had a footnote explaining “blue”: “express letter transmitted by pneumatic tube.” If Mister Gold’s students had had this edition, they might not have disappointed him!
    Well, as I have subsequently learned, Paris’s system of pneumatic tubes wasn’t terminated until 1984, and there was a March 31, 1984 article in the NY Times announcing it: “Paris Pneumatique Is Now a Dead Letter,” by John Vinocur, which begins:

PARIS, March 30— The epistolary tradition, which has been steadily running out of breath in this country since Madame de Staël, took another very hard blow on Friday at 5 P.M. After 117 years of service, the Government has done away with la lettre pneumatique.
    A whoosh of compressed air, a rattling of tubes under the city, and then a postman ringing the bell, announcing he had brought what the French simply called a pneu [not a “bleu” in this account]: For the equivalent of about $1.80, you could get a letter from any point in Paris to any other place in the city in two hours.
By Alfred Ely Beach -
“The Pneumatic Dispatch,”
American News Co., Public Domain
Paris was not the only city to have pneumatic post, as I have also learned. From Wikipedia’s article on the pneumatic tube:
In Prague, in the Czech Republic, the network extended approximately 60 kilometres (37 mi).
    Pneumatic post stations usually connect post offices, stock exchanges, banks and ministries. Italy was the only country to issue postage stamps (between 1913 and 1966) specifically for pneumatic post. Austria, France, and Germany issued postal stationery for pneumatic use.
    Typical current applications are in banks, hospitals and supermarkets. Many large retailers use pneumatic tubes to transport cheques or other documents from cashiers to the accounting office.
    Banks...Quite by coincidence (I thought, but might it have been “providential”?), I had used the drive-up teller at my credit union on Friday morning, for the first time in years, and I transmitted the check I wanted to cash to the teller by way of…pneumatic tube!

Copyright © 2017 by Moristotle


  1. A great story. It reminds me that in my childhood the Tulare Department Store (Lindsay's?) had a pneumatic system to send stuff from cash registers to Accounting. I was fascinated.

    1. I seem to remember that too, but I can't remember whether I was fascinated by it or thought it – what? – commonplace?

    2. I can't remember the name of the store, but at Christmas time they opened up the basement and filled it with toys. However, over in one corner was the hub for the tube system in the store. There were seven or eight tubes with two men manning the station. They would take containers out of one tube and empty it and sent it back. Loved to watch them.

  2. This Paris Journal piece has elicited more comments than expected. Besides those above, here are three more, one made on Facebook, the second and third by way of email.

    Interesting! I remember the magical pneumatic tubes at the Minneapolis and St. Paul Dayton's department stores, and also our small town's savings & loan, but the pneumatic post is news!

    While I never sent any pneus, or even bleus, while I was living in Paris, I did appreciate the other services provided by the PTT (Postes, Télégraphes et Téléphones) at the time, including not only startling fast transit times within Paris (or even within France), but also twice a day mail delivery! Ah, those were the days!

    Thanks for the memories of the old pneumatic tube systems! I never realized that there were actually citywide systems underground. I just remember their use in large department stores. During my college years I worked at Bullocks downtown (at 6th and Hill, I believe). We put the sales slips and money into a tube and it "whooshed" away – only to be returned in another whoosh and clunk with the sales slip and correct change. I can only imagine that sound going on beneath the rues of Paris!